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Home >Case Studies >West Allis, Wisconsin: Supportive Housing in Suburban Milwaukee

 

West Allis, Wisconsin: Supportive Housing in Suburban Milwaukee

 

For people living with mental illness, a lack of safe, stable, and affordable housing is a significant barrier to recovery and better health. Absent quality housing choices, many people experience housing instability and live in substandard conditions that exacerbate illness and strain public resources. In recent years, officials in Milwaukee County and the city of Milwaukee have been addressing these challenges by expanding housing opportunities for individuals with mental illness. One result of this work is Highland Commons, a supportive housing complex that was the recipient of an inaugural HUD Secretary’s Award for Healthy Homes for 2015.

Revitalizing a Beleaguered Site

In spring 2009, Cardinal Capital Management was appointed as the receiver for a distressed rooming house for persons with mental illness in the city of West Allis in suburban Milwaukee. Originally built in the 1940s, the facility was physically deteriorated, questionably managed, and symptomatic of the severe housing crisis facing people with mental illness throughout Milwaukee County. Local reporting on the issue in 2006, along with a special needs housing task force report from 2007, determined that quality, affordable housing options that were paired with an appropriate level of supportive services were scarce, leaving many residents living in inadequate, even squalid conditions.

Years of deferred maintenance and physical obsolescence made rehabilitating the rooming house financially impractical. Cardinal razed the building and dramatically transformed the property’s physical and social dimensions. Located in a safe suburban neighborhood, the site offered the county a unique opportunity to expand supportive housing beyond the urban Milwaukee neighborhoods where it has traditionally been built. Following the relocation of the old facility’s residents, Cardinal began constructing sustainable, supportive housing that would provide a healthy living environment for people with severe and persistent mental illness.

Highland Commons includes 50 one-bedroom apartments in a building that was designed with the housing and supportive service needs of the residents in mind. Each unit is fully equipped with a kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom to allow for independent living and privacy, while the building provides numerous other amenities to support resident health and development. Residents have access to a fitness center, a community room with a kitchen, and a computer lab with Internet access as well as an outdoor patio and vegetable garden. The individual units receive generous amounts of natural sunlight, and the interior paint colors were selected for their calming effect on individuals who are especially sensitive to stress.

Housing as a Path to Stability and Recovery

A supportive service program for resident well-being and recovery augments the housing at Highland Commons, funded by a grant from the Housing Division of the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services. As part of the program, each resident has an individualized Wellness Recovery Action Plan to help him or her identify stressors and appropriate response techniques.

The program also includes Peer Support Specialists, adults living with mental illness who are trained and certified to help others suffering from mental illness and substance abuse. The specialists mentor Highland Commons residents, whom they interact with every day. The specialists also facilitate a variety of group meetings, including daily sessions covering such topics as depression, anger management, medication management, substance abuse, and developing and maintaining meaningful relationships. Residents can also participate in groups focusing on healthy cooking, computer literacy, social skills, and other life skills. In addition, a full-time, onsite service coordinator works with residents to facilitate access to medical care and other offsite services.

Leveraging Housing to Support Health

Highland Commons would not have been possible without the financial support of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, which provided an allocation of low-income housing tax credits that resulted in an $8.24 million equity investment in the project (table 1). The Milwaukee County Housing Trust Fund provided a $272,000 grant, and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago provided an additional $300,000 loan. Along with the capital subsidy, the 50 units of supportive housing receive project-based rental assistance through the Milwaukee County Division of Housing. As a result, residents pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward housing. The Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services funds the supportive services.

Table 1. Highland Commons Capital Financing

Low-income housing tax credit equity

$8,239,700

Permanent loan

785,000

Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago Affordable Housing Program

300,000

Milwaukee County Housing Trust Fund

272,000

Deferred developer fee

105,800

Milwaukee County energy grant

16,800

Total

$9,719,300

Stable Housing and Supportive Services Advancing Health

Since opening in 2012, Highland Commons has shown how safe and stable housing can lead to positive outcomes for individuals as well as for healthcare and service providers, who are seeing the favorable results first-hand. Eighty-six percent of residents experienced an increase in their daily living skills, surpassing the project’s goal of 70 percent, and 82 percent of residents remained in their lease for 1 year or longer, exceeding the projected level of 80 percent. Most residents (80%) remained free from psychiatric hospitalizations and unnecessary emergency room visits, which also exceeded the projected level of 70 percent. Although many residents had been frequently hospitalized in the past, few have been hospitalized since moving to Highland Commons, which suggests that the supportive housing program has helped reduce unnecessary medical costs.

The project is one of the first supportive housing developments in Milwaukee County to be built outside the city of Milwaukee and is an important part of broadening and diversifying the continuum of housing opportunities available to individuals living with mental illness. Although policymakers in Milwaukee County have recently made progress in creating more supportive housing, a significant need for additional units in high-quality, safe neighborhoods remains unmet.


Source:

Marie Herb, Emily Miller, and Ann O’Hara. 2003. “A Housing Toolkit: Information to the help the public mental health community meet the housing needs of people with mental illnesses,” National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed 9 September 2015; Milwaukee Continuum of Care. January 2015. "We Will End Homelessness in Milwaukee: Mid-Course Revisions: 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness." Accessed 7 September 2015.

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Source:

City of Milwaukee Special Needs Housing Action Team. “Final Report.” 2007. Accessed 9 September 2015; M. Kissinger. 2006. “Mentally Ill Suffer Deadly Neglect,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 19 March. Accessed 9 September 2015; Information provided by Cardinal Capital.

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Source:

Information provided by Cardinal Capital; Group interview with Erich Schwenker, president of Cardinal Capital; Carol Keen, asset manager at Cardinal Capital; and Pamela Lyons, marketing coordinator at Cardinal Capital, 7 September 2015.

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Source:

Information provided by Cardinal Capital.

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Source:

Information provided by Cardinal Capital.

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Source:

Information provided by Cardinal Capital.

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Source:

Information provided by Cardinal Capital.

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Source:

Information provided by Cardinal Capital.

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Source:

Group interview with Erich Schwenker, president of Cardinal Capital; Carol Keen, asset manager at Cardinal Capital; and Pamela Lyons, marketing coordinator at Cardinal Capital, 7 September 2015; Wilberg, Janice. 2015. "Capacity Analysis: Milwaukee Continuum of Care." Accessed 9 September 2015.

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